Local option levies: Yes.
Three Lane County school districts have local option property-tax levies on the Nov. 4 ballot. Though no two school districts are alike, the purposes of the levies are the same: They will allow schools to supplement state funds with local resources. With such support, the Eugene, Crow-Applegate-Lorane and Siuslaw school districts can propel themselves beyond adequacy and strengthen their communities with superior educational programs.
The Legislature created the local option in 1999 after the property-tax limitation measures of the previous decade had taken full effect. Those measures shifted primary financial responsibility for local schools from property tax payers to the state.
One result was equalization: School districts throughout Oregon moved closer to parity in per-student spending. Districts that had long been underfunded gained ground. But school districts whose patrons had taxed themselves to support educational excellence were pulled down to the new statewide baseline. With the local option, the Legislature restored a degree of local control: Voters gained a limited ability to strengthen their schools.
Local option levies differ from most property tax levies. In Oregon, the assessed value of property for purposes of taxation can be increased by no more than 3 percent a year. Real property values have risen by more than that. A local option levy applies property taxes to the gap between the real and assessed values. Property owners can calculate their maximum tax under a local option levy with the help of a worksheet at www.4j.lane?.edu/local_option_2008.
Or there's an easier way: In the Eugene and Crow-Applegate-Lorane school districts, property owners can simply check their current year's property tax statements, and figure that they'd pay about the same amount. Both districts' local option levies would renew existing levies with no changes in the property tax rate of $1.45 per $1,000 of property value.
Voters in the two districts first approved local option levies in 2000, and renewed them in 2004. The Eugene School District's Measure 20-137 and Crow-Applegate-Lorane's Measure 20-147 would extend the existing levies for five years, beginning in 2010. The districts placed their renewal measures on this year's ballot to ensure that their proposals would not run afoul of the voter turnout requirement that applies to all other election dates.
In the Eugene district, the local option levy provides about 10 percent of the general fund budget. Without that money, the district's art and music programs would be jeopardized, class sizes would increase and new math and science requirements for high school graduation could be implemented only by cutting elsewhere. Voters recognize that the levy provides the resources that help Eugene students consistently outperform their counterparts statewide - the levy that Measure 20-137 would renew was approved by 72 percent of voters.
The levy is no less important in the Crow-Applegate-Lorane district, where it supports about three teaching positions. Indeed, a local option levy may be even more vital in a small rural school district. The district's patrons have a long tradition of taxing themselves to support education - voters understand that without strong schools, families with children would choose to live elsewhere. Before the local option became available, the district was being dragged toward mediocrity and was losing students. Measure 20-147 would renew a levy that was approved by 62 percent of voters.
Voters in the Siuslaw School District narrowly defeated a local option levy two years ago. Measure 20-139 gives them an opportunity to reverse that decision, and arrest the steady series of budget cuts that have weakened the district's schools throughout the current decade. The five-year levy would result in a tax rate of 95 cents per $1,000 of property value.
In all three districts, approval of a local option levy indicates a recognition that average isn't good enough, and that the state doesn't provide money sufficient to fund the well-rounded education that students deserve and need. In strong communities, high-quality education isn't really optional, it's a necessity. The levies deserve support - and, because they will appear at the end of a lengthy ballot, must not be overlooked by voters.